Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
It seems appropriate that the first screening I attended for the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival should be a movie about stories and con games: "The Brothers Bloom," written and directed by Rian Johnson, maker of "Brick," one of my favorite movies of 2005.
Now look back at that sentence and you'll notice it's a setup for another story. (And con?)
I mean, of course it's going to make sense to me that the first movie I see in Toronto is going to be about storytelling as con artistry, in which stories themselves are the biggest cons of all -- because, then, seeing the movie becomes part of my story, and the lead (or "lede," if you prefer) for the story you're reading now, about my first TIFF 2008 screening. That's the way stories work, and the way we work stories.
(There's also another story shaping, and being shaped by, popular discourse right now -- something pundit Peggy Noonan called "political bullshit about 'narratives'" -- that appears to be a Cinderella story of one sort or another, and that indubitably informs one's perceptions of "The Brothers Bloom" when encountered at this particular moment.)
Eponymous brother Steven (Mark Ruffalo) is a con artist who likes to emphasize the artistry in his work. He scripts his cons in beautifully shaped diagrams, weaving into them literary references -- not unlike the way "The Brothers Bloom" incorporates movie references -- that lend them artistic resonance. His little brother, known as Bloom (Adrien Brody), is invariably cast as the romantic lead in Steven's narratives, and he's grown tired and disillusioned with the role.
Steven likes to say that the perfect con is one in which everybody gets what he wants, but Bloom never does. Love stories are the biggest cons of all, and while Bloom always gets his mark, he never gets the girl. So Steven guarantees Bloom a perfect con if he'll just trust him. The unsuspecting female lead: a flighty heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz).
There's a Wes Anderson fairy-tale aspect to "The Brothers Bloom," all the more apparent because Brody just starred in Anderson's similarly fanciful "The Darjeeling Limited" last year. And, like "Brick" (a Southern California high school riff on the Coens' "Miller's Crossing," with a noirish lingo all its own), "Brothers Bloom" is in love with language -- written, spoken and cinematic. The characters explicitly state the movie's themes (about wanting to "live an unwritten life," about storytelling itself as the Big Con) as blatantly as in "The Dark Knight." The difference is that Johnson breathes life into his movie, as Steven does into his artful schemes, with images and allusions that echo off one another. "The Brothers Bloom" doesn't just tell you what it's about, and it doesn't just show you, either. It starts bouncing around in your head, playfully suggesting worlds of possibilities beyond what's in front of you at any given moment.
For example: The film opens with a story about the brothers' first great childhood con, narrated by the marvelous Mamet icon, magician Ricky Jay, in rhyming verse. So, right away, movie-memories associations start reverberating: Jay's ingenious card tricks, Mamet's movie con games, the superbly diagramed opening narration Jay voices in PT Anderson's "Magnolia"... Meanwhile, the boys, dressed in black suits and hats, sitting in the woods, unmistakably evoke the look of the inspiration for Johnson's first movie, "Miller's Crossing."
And it just keeps spinning stories from there. Characters, images, sequences, songs, bits of dialog suggest other movies, books, songs, characters, eras. Steven dresses as the film director/circus ringmaster Guido, Marcello Mastroianni's character in Fellini's "8 1/2." Penelope and the brothers become, for a sequence or so, the trio from Truffaut's "Jules and Jim" -- hinting at paths the film might take, whether it eventually does or not. (Indirection: Isn't that what stories and cons and magic tricks are all about?) What at first seems to be a Bowie allusion unexpectedly and poetically morphs into a Joni Mitchell lyric. Rod Stewart's version of "I Know I'm Losing You" kicks the movie into high gear (it could be Steven addressing Bloom) -- but what we're seeing looks like the late 1920s or early 1930s. Bob Dylan croons "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," with no Nashville skyline in sight -- though the locations do include Montenegro, Prague, Bucharest, Serbia... And there are enough colorful umbrellas here to keep even a spot of rain from falling on Cherbourg.
I felt "The Brothers Bloom" had a few doldrums, but it's stayed with me through all the other movies I've seen since. The more it sits with me, and plays around in my head, the more I like it.
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